Around 39 A.D. in Vietnam, two sisters and their supporters lead a huge rebellion against Chinese invasion. These Amazonian-like women are Trưng Trắc, Trưng Nhị, and their army made of many female warriors. I don't think anywhere else in the world during this time women have such freedom and power. Even though they fail in driving the Chinese away for good, their exploits imply a very different Vietnamese social order. Maybe, Vietnam is a matriarchal society before Chinese domination.
Since it's Mother's Day, I want to take the opportunity to write about a film on Vietnamese women. I’ve been hearing a lot of Surname Viet Given Nam for a long time. Many thanks to Trinh Minh Ha and Women Make Movie for lending me a reviewing copy. When I moved, the film got lost in the mail and it took me a really long time to get to it. Please watch the movie first before reading further.
Surname Viet Given Name Nam is an incredibly rebellious film. The director Trinh Minh Ha plasters her cinematic canvas with bold strokes creating a complex experiment on the image of Vietnamese women. The synergy of form and content is engaging and meditating. It makes me proactive after watching it. I'm confused in the beginning but stunned at the last half that transcends the genre of documentary filmmaking. Surname flips the bird on gender inequality and documentary filmmaking conventions. Ha pushes the envelope, tears it to pieces, and then burns them to ashes.
The film deals with the collective identities of Vietnamese women in the patriarchal history and culture of Vietnam. In public, they are perceived as the bride of the nation therefore taking the last name Nam and first name Viet. At home, they are expected to be dutiful and subservient to their male household members due to strict sexist Confucian civil codes. Ha explores these stereotypes thoroughly through her radical filmmaking style. She shows us a plethora of Vietnamese folk songs, poetry, and photographs highlighting their struggles. Their bondage to the nation and dependence on family rids them of any sense of individuality. The origin of their societal roles and the changes those roles have gone through history are a lot more complicated. I'll try to go into a little bit of that later but first, I want to talk about the dynamic relationship of form and content and what comes out of that in the film for me. Form refers to unique cinema characteristics. For example, the film's lighting, sound, color, camera movement, or timing are all attributes that together constitute the film's form. Content is its message, which is about the oppression of Vietnamese women.
Form and Content
This is a metafilm where the form and the content complement each other. The form served to question the representational nature of film. The content is about how social injustice have morphed the psyche of Vietnamese women. Ha questions the lack of individualism of Vietnamese women as much as cinema's role of being truthful. Is film a suitable medium for this subject matter? Can we trust the women interviewed in the film? Can we trust Ha? Her strategy is to breakdown documentary filmmaking techniques and point to their flaws. In the first part, the film draws attention to itself. We see Structural filmmaking techniques that jolt the audience out of their suspension of disbelief. The interviews during this portion are very awkward. Sometimes, the camera seems to wander away from the subject. The lighting is inconsistent going from low key to flat disrupting the mood of a scene. The frame composition is different than what we expect from a standard documentary film. Instead of the traditional rule of third, we have extreme close ups, high angle, low angle, and sometimes actors face away from the camera. Multiple soundtracks are overlapped to confuse the viewers. Subtitles are superimposed directly onto the subjects' faces and sometimes they don't translate what's being said.
The second part comes as a surprise. I learn that the interviews are staged. They aren't even shot in Vietnam. The women in the interviews are played by amateur Vietnamese American actresses reenacting translated interviews from other Vietnamese women in Vietnam. The original interviews were documented in French by a Eurasian. Ha then translated them to Vietnamese for the performance. This revelation doesn't shock me as say Jeanne Dielman. However, I still feel fooled because I’ve always expected a documentary film to tell the facts, a mirror of reality. After I let it sinks in, the film makes sense to me. The second part is integral to the whole film's message, which is all about trusting what you see on screen. No doubt Ha opposes techniques such as point the camera, press the record button, and let the scene plays out. I think she's against this direct, materialistic, limited, rigid, or even masculine tendency. The point is that these women are actors in front of the camera. The presence of the camera makes them act and therefore being less authentic. Similarly, in real life, Vietnamese women are not being true to themselves since they are too aware of society's social codes. They want to project an image of a dutiful, elegant, and virtuous being. Surname shows that the system of making film encourages its subject to pretend and then references that to the suppression of Vietnamese women from speaking honestly in Vietnamese society because of expectation caused by Confucian ethics. This comparison of Vietnamese sexist social norm and the paradigm of cinema is at the heart of the film.
Often, the film talks about The Tale of Kiều, one of the most important poems in Vietnamese culture. This poems is written by a man and it contains Confucian and Buddhism philosophies. Kieu is an incredible woman but has a horrible fate. She is prevented from reaching her full potential, to present herself truthfully. Her life is pushed and pulled by uncontrollable forces. She has no control of her destiny. This concept of not being able to be one's true self is also explored in the film's interview technique. How much should we trust the Vietnamese women who are acting in front of the camera? Are the original interviewees true to themselves? Ha undermines our false interpretation that documentary film is completely nonfiction. This interplay of form and content is what makes the film compelling for me. The form can be the content and the content be the form. Cinema in all its genres is just another type of translation. It’s a projection of an image on a part of the whole. The women's performances are based on unoriginal and altered materials. Information is authored, filtered, translated, selected, and edited. Language barrier plays a big role in the transmission of information. The actresses seem to be aloof from the materials. Why does Ha translate the already translated original interviews to English? What if she has them in Vietnamese instead, and let the actresses speak Vietnamese? Would that have made a difference in the authenticity of the film? I think that Ha knows she can never truly comprehend what the women in the original interviews have gone through. After all, she doesn't come from the same social status as those women. Therefore, this self awareness and self questioning is an admission. The film tells the audience that it projects an incomplete image of what it’s portraying, just like Vietnamese poetry and music that have pigeonholed Vietnamese women’s identity for hundreds of years. Even this article itself needs to be questioned since it is written by a Vietnamese man who considers himself married to the nation as well therefore proclaims his first name Nam and last name Nam.
The Journey Toward Ecstatic Truth
One the surface, it may seem that Ha is telling us film and Vietnamese women are full of lies. But on a deeper layer, I think she is preparing us to go to another level where the film leads us, which is in tune with Herzog’s Ecstatic Truth. He claims that documentary film can achieve a greater truth than the accountant's truth through stylization, imagination and to some degree, invention. It's just that the audience has to be elevated onto an ecstatic state of mind to make this possible. This is what Ha is doing. She’s using stylization in the first part to provoke the viewers, to make them "feel" instead of "see" and "hear". Her weird usage of images and sound makes the audience engage with the film, not to be spoon fed. Therefore, she’s pointing them to a greater truth beyond the one based on representation. This journey toward a greater truth is the synthesis from the marriage of form and content in Surname.
Is there such a thing as, for the lack of a better word, a completely truthful film? Can cinema be completely honest, unaltered, and unedited? Does truth have to mirror facts? Is there a difference in cinematic truth and factual truth? Facts are direct, and truth is indirect. Eisenstein says that film is conceptual. Due to the film’s contradictory and manipulating structure, the audience feel distrusted at the information they see on screen. I think it all comes down to details. The facts are like the details. Yes, some details may not be accurate through many translations but together they can paint a general picture, a concept, like a Chuck Close or a Seurat. This bigger picture is the truth. So the question is what is lost and what is gained after we put together this bigger picture from the little dots? This is what Surname encourages us to find. Well, I went and looked for it by showing the film to my mom and aunt. I didn't tell them anything. My mom and my aunt had never seen any experimental films. They were used to variety shows like Paris By Night. Even though they felt some part of the films were really confusing, they accepted what the film showed them. Maybe they were perplexed at certain parts but overall they trusted the film. I think it was because they could relate to the subject matter. Therefore it made them more tolerant to its main twist. After they saw it, they talked about the five virtues, songs and poems, folk tales, social traditions, and particularly the heroines. When speaking about the Trung sisters, they spoke as if they were invigorated by their stories. They fight with their children in battle, and choose suicide over surrender. When referencing to some of the struggles they had gone through when they were in Vietnam, my mom and aunt talked about those experiences fondly. For example, my aunt recalled a story of when she was a young girl in the village. In order to get to school, she and her friends had to walk naked across a river. In order to keep their school uniforms dry, they had to take them off and put them in plastic bags. The incompetent local government wouldn’t spend money to build a bridge. This was horrible and humiliating but my aunt recalled that memory with girlish giggles. On a serious note, she said that was how she learned to swim and later saved her life when she was one of the boat people hiding from sea pirates. I got bold and asked them about the subjugation of Vietnamese women by Vietnam's patriarchal society. They said that Vietnam was built by men but maintained by women. Women cook, sewn up torn clothing, teach, help out in the rice field, and raise children. Also, I asked them about the differences between Vietnamese women and other Asian women. They told me Chinese women and Japanese women have less civil rights. They cited the feet binding in Chinese culture and the extreme degree of obedience Japanese women had to be with their spouses at home. While other women are like prisoners to their husbands, Vietnamese women do have a say in the family even if they are second in command. They can influence their children a great deal. They seem to be very proud to be Vietnamese women. They mentioned Bà Triệu, who is buffed, violent, and ugly. I'm familiar with her but it never occur to me how very different she is from the flowery image of Vietnamese women today. Of course, some of these are myths, but I still find it intriguing and captivating that women in early Vietnamese civilization might be very different. There is no proof of this but I think Vietnamese women had a lot more rights before Chinese domination.
The Wife and The Warrior: History Of Vietnam
Moreover, my mom and aunt did make one more very interesting comment that caused me to ponder deeper into this subject than I originally intended. They pointed out fascinatingly that the S-like shape of Vietnam on the map resembles the curvy figure of a woman wearing a conical hat. This sounds like a superficial observation that requires a little stretch of the imagination. But I kept thinking about it and something disturbing occurred. Imagine Western leaders looking at Vietnam on the map, and deep in their subconscious, the likeness of a country to a woman influenced their foreign policy. I heard that French and American's attitudes toward Vietnam during the wars were often sexual and racist. They saw Vietnam as an effeminate and exotic country that needed conquering or protecting from a horrible fate. First, they viewed Vietnam as a damsel in distress that needed to be rescued. After they encountered tough resistance, they switched this perception to the warrior dragon lady that must be conquered. I also wondered about how the stereotypes of the wife and the warrior were formed throughout Vietnamese's history. I think it had to do with Vietnam's history of being dominated, colonized, and influenced by many foreign invaders: the Chinese, the French, the Americans, Russian, British, and Japanese. Presently, the Chinese are trying again in a lot more sneaky ways. So the collective roles of Vietnamese women came about as the result of two causes: the attitude of the Vietnamese people amidst foreign invasion and the influences these foreign cultures have on them. For example, the Chinese hammered Confucian ethics for a thousand years into Vietnamese minds and hearts. It brought the five virtues which Vietnamese women abide by to become submissive. The French’s colonists, fearing the warrior in Vietnamese females, educated young Vietnamese girls with their own Western ideology. The French opened many Vietnamese Girls’ schools but the educated girls went on to become anti-colonial activists. Many Vietnamese elite females joined resistance forces. The French tried to brainwash women with Western values but couldn’t due to the strong nationalism within them. All in all, Chinese’s Confucian philosophy pushes Vietnamese women into servitude, and invaders have stamped them as the untrustworthy dragon lady. What the French and Americans didn't get was that they think the Vietnamese didn't have an identity. They thought that since Vietnamese adopted Chinese laws, rules, and ethics, therefore, they were like the Chinese, except smaller. Vietnamese culture and nationalism have been around before the birth of Christ. So they will fight to the end to preserve this. It doesn’t matter how strong invaders are, the Vietnamese will beat them at all cost, even if women have to fight. This determination to fight invasion gives rise to the roles of the peaceful loving wife who turns into the female warrior to guard her home. The communists and nationalists combine the two stereotypes for a different purpose. They use the image of the mother and the warrior to gain national support for the revolution therefore further the linkage of home to nation. For example, Ho Chi Minh and his administration often referred to the Trung Sisters, and Ba Trieu to rally young Vietnamese women to fight for them. However, they still emphasized first that these heroines were ideal daughters and wives before they were warriors. Very sadly, these women sacrificed so much and had their glory undermined by the male superiors they took orders from, not to mention getting little postwar support to live normal lives. Bottom line, they are wives, daughters, and mothers first who only take up arms to fight after their male counterparts have failed. However, the image of a mother who carries her child at the same time fighting against foreign invasion echoes that Vietnamese-ness that have been around since the Bronze Age. The Tale of Kiều further supports that at its core, Vietnam is a female oriented nation. One can look at Kieu as a personification of Vietnam, a beautiful country having much bad karma in its history awaiting to be saved. Many saviors came to her aid but none succeeded. Her life is full of misery, tribulations, and disappointment. The main protest that Surname has against Vietnamese's treatment of its women is not the bondage of women to the nation. It is that the bondage cannot be unbind. Burden is carried and expected. Freedom is lost.
Modern Vietnamese Women
What about contemporary Vietnamese women in Vietnam today or Vietnamese women living abroad? How have assimilation and modernization affect their identity? In Surname, Ha shows a sequence of a young Americanized Vietnamese girl interacting with an American girl, and later shows images of a wedding between a Vietnamese woman and a Caucasian man. The second part also shows Vietnamese women who are actresses in the first part living in the US employed in jobs usually for men. It also shows them being socially conscious like attending a rally and speaking at a school. These depictions are meant to signify the drastic changes that Vietnamese women face when living in a different culture, yet they are still Vietnamese women. However, I still think that even though the general picture paints Vietnamese women embodying filial piety or possessing feisty fighting spirit, the detailed roles they play in their daily lives have been a lot more varied. They have been artists, nurses, farmers, activists, radicals, Francophiles, and ideal mothers long before and during the Vietnam War. It is only when the country comes under threat that the two stereotypes emerge. I think Ha is very critical of the way folk songs, poems, movies, literatures, and other types of media portray Vietnamese women as more of the dutiful wife and daughter than the deadly brave warriors like the Trung sisters. Sadly, this incomplete portrayal is by men who are proponent of Confucian philosophy, a foreigner's ethical system. They favor the oppression of women to their advantage by selling out their values for the Chinese's. In modern Vietnam today, the strength, independent spirit, patriotism, and leadership of Vietnam's past heroines are replaced by the superficiality of runway models, a beauty standard from the West. On TV, on the street, in the movies, we witness the endorsement of a new type of Vietnamese woman. Instead of queens riding on elephants with battle cries, there are princesses with Gucci bags and gossiping on cell phones. People become what they see on screen, in magazines, on TV, and hear on the radios. In turns, the media portrays what they see in people, except with a lot of Photoshoping. This dependency between reality and the image of reality is the same as the form and content of Surname. They are interchangeable and rely on each other. The image of reality becomes reality itself and vice versa.
Surname's comparison of how cinema creates an image that we take for granted to the distorted expectation of Vietnamese women identity is captivating. When we expect cinema to represent reality, it will give us unimaginative content, such as the case with most mainstream movies nowadays. It loses its multi dimensional identity, which vary a great deal because it encompasses so many disciplines from many art forms. Surname rebels against this tradition of cinema reflecting reality by calling to something sublime. Through the dynamic relationship of form and content, it invokes a new concept, a synthesis. For this to be possible, one can't simple take any form and couple it with any content. They have to complement each other equally. Form is the content and the content is the form. One can't upstage the other. When watching a Hollywood movie, you're always engrossed by the story, acting, and theme. Rarely does the audience ever think about film as an art form. Even the filmmakers put the content first before the form. The opposite is true with artsy experiment films. They place form, style, and structure in the forefront upstaging thematic elements otherwise would connect with the viewer. I've always think that the Materialists' films are too squared. There is little poetry in them. This imbalance is the main cause why cinema cannot be completely truthful. When a film tells a story, it is fiction. However, if it confesses that it's telling a story and describes its methods and processes, then it can be a very truthful film.
Unfortunately, there is always tinkering in all genres of filmmaking. Surname is less about facts and more about what's missing or added. Thus, why do we settle on cold hard facts when we know it's might be changed or incompletely presented? Instead, why not just accept the fluctuation of the truth? Who knows what really happen to Bà Triệu after she loses the battle with the Chinese general? Did she bravely commit suicide and jump into a river? Or was she captured and executed? Did the Trung sisters really fought on elephants? Did their female army run away after Chinese soldiers exposed themselves? We will never know. However, it shouldn't discourage us from going out there and try to find out. This is what Surname Viet Given Name Nam leaves me with. The pursuit of truth is more important and exciting than the truth itself.
On a side note, a little nag that I have is why does it always have to be someone heavily influenced by outsider's values and philosophies to create works of art about native subject? All in all, The Tale of Kieu is written by Nguyen Du, who based the poem on a Chinese tale while he was studying in China. Trinh Minh Ha was born in Vietnam, educated in Vietnam by the French, USA, and possibly in many other places. She’s a writer, music composer, filmmaker, researcher, teacher, and scholar. I think it would be interesting to see a film made by someone who had similar experience as the women it portrays. Their voices shouldn't be translated so we can understand them. It should be the other way around. Vietnamese women should be empowered to speak for themselves without translation.